October 30, 2018

In Memoriam: John Maguire — social activist, friend of MLK, and longest-serving CGU president

John Maguire addresses CGU's trustees in 2016.
Emeritus President John Maguire speaks during the 2016 board of trustees dinner at the President's House in Claremont on May 12, 2016

The university is mourning the loss of President Emeritus John Maguire, who passed away last week after suffering a major stroke. He was 86.  He is survived by his family, which includes wife Billie and daughters Catherine, Mary, and Anne.

Maguire’s passing was announced late last week in an email message from CGU President Len Jessup to the campus community. Jessup praised Maguire’s untiring service to the university, noting that “his impact and legacy extend far beyond his presidential term.”

That legacy is especially distinguished by Maguire’s lifelong dedication to social justice and activism.

Early Friendship with MLK

Born in August 1932, an Alabamian with an Ivy League education and a gift for storytelling, Maguire forged his social conscience in the crucible of the civil rights movement.

One of the original Freedom Riders (his harrowing experience was published in a 1961 issue of Life magazine), Maguire met and roomed with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at a spiritual conference in Pennsylvania when Maguire was 19.

That meeting marked one of several major shifts in Maguire’s thinking and resulted in a 17-year-long friendship between the two men.

John Maguire with Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1961
John Maguire with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1961. (Photo courtesy of the Maguires)

“Up until I was 16 years old and a senior in high school, I did the same thing my friends did” which included harassing and insulting the town’s African American community, he told a USC interviewer four years ago. But he recalled how his experience rooming with King, joining the Freedom Rides and sit-ins, and studying philosophy at Washington and Lee University took that behavior and mindset “right out of you. You literally had no place to stand.”

Academic pursuits, achievements

Maguire’s undergraduate years at Washington and Lee University were only the beginning of his intellectual and academic pursuits. He went on to become a Fulbright fellow in Scotland as well as complete both his Bachelor of Divinity (1956) and doctorate in theology and psychiatry (1960) from Yale Divinity School.

In 1965, Maguire also served as a Fulbright scholar at the Universität Tübingen in Germany, one of several institutions where he engaged in post-doctoral research. In 2009, received the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal from Edinburgh University, Scotland. He also was awarded honorary degrees from Washington and Lee University (1979) and Transylvania University (1990).

The longest-serving president in CGU history (from 1981 to 1998), Maguire held many academic leadership positions throughout his storied career including President, State University of New York College at Old Westbury, beginning in 1970. In 1981, he left New York and joined CGU.

Service to CGU, Other activities

Maguire’s many achievements at CGU include: his co-founding of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, a CGU-based literary award that is the world’s largest monetary prize for a single collection of poetry; and his guidance of the university through reorganization and renaming, as well as successful campaigns bringing more than $94 million in resources to the university.

Maguire also served as a charter trustee for the Keck Graduate Institute through 1998 and established a John D. and Lillian Maguire Distinguished Professor in the Humanities Chair at the university.

His relationships and friendships in the artistic and intellectual spheres resulted in visits to campus by numerous dignitaries and luminaries including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Coretta Scott King, Maya Angelou, and Robert Redford, among many others.

“Along with his wife, Billie, he worked tirelessly to positively impact the lives of university students, the local community, and national and international communities,” CGU President Jessup said in his announcement about Maguire’s passing, “with his ongoing and dedicated efforts to combat and end racism” for the betterment of humanity.

Following his presidential tenure, Maguire stayed connected to the university through his service as a Senior Fellow in the university’s Division of Politics & Economics and as director of the Institute for Democratic Renewal.

Maguire also continued to be active with other institutions, including his service as a member of the Board of Trustees of Union Theological Seminary. He also organized and led ground-breaking initiatives on race and democracy. He sought to combat institutionalized racism and remedy race-based disparities in areas such as education, healthcare delivery, economic development, and criminal justice.

“He believed that our promise as a nation would only be realized by breaking down these barriers and focusing on social justice for all,” Jessup said. “[W]e will do our best to continue his work and carry his flame forward.”